Tucked away behind the multi-storey car park of Manchester Royal Infirmary lies the birth of the Suffragette movement: the Pankhurst Centre. Once the home of radical feminist pioneers, the Pankhurst family, the building is now home to the Pankhurst Trust and Manchester Women’s Aid. It would be hard to find a single person in Manchester who did not know a single thing about the Suffragettes or the Pankhurst family, but the story of what happened to the building after the family left is hardly common knowledge at all.

As part of the Trust’s recent project, I’ve spent every Thursday afternoon for a few months now at the Centre, sifting through and sorting the materials inside boxes upon boxes to catalogue them for a new archive that aims to tell this very story. The building that was once home to the Pankhursts represents much more than just them, but now it stands as a symbol for the radical work done by the generations of women who followed them, and the generations yet to come.

In the latter half of the 20th century when the hospital was being expanded, what is now the Pankhurst Centre was set to be demolished, and with its crumbling would have come the destruction of an immeasurably important site of feminist history. The building represents a turning point in women’s history. After the demolition plans became known to the public, there was national outcry against them. The Manchester Heritage Trust became a key part of saving the site and preventing demolition; they organised meetings with representatives of different women’s groups in order to raise the profile and create a movement for the cause. The real heart of the movement, however, was the women of Manchester.

It was in the 1980s that women came together to continue the radical feminist legacy of the Pankhurst family in order to save their former home. The bricks and mortar of the site were saved after relentless campaigning by Manchester’s feminist networks and even squatting in the building. 1987 was the year that the building opened officially as the Pankhurst Centre. Key figures of Britain’s feminist movement were present for the occasion, like Barbara Castle, who had spearheaded the hugely important 1975 Sex Discrimination Act. Castle reportedly enjoyed chatting and mingling among former Suffragettes at the opening ceremony. Helen Pankhurst, the great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, was also there to see the beginning of the next chapter.

Blood, sweat and tears had been poured into the restoration of the building. Many female construction apprentices had worked on the site to bring it back to its former glory. The project didn’t just bring the building back to life, it also gave women new skills in not only construction and restoration, but in organising and fundraising. Various different kinds of events were put on to raise the much needed money to get the centre up and running, and to keep it going once it had opened. Ideas from coffee mornings to sponsored walks came to fruition and with them those vital funds were raised.

Prominent figures became patrons of the appeal of the Pankhurst Trust, and letter writing became a key initiative. Such an old and fragile building was difficult and expensive to maintain, this meant anyone and everyone was considered as a potential donor. Members of Parliament from up and down the country were written to by women at the centre to ask for help in fundraising. Many celebrities were also contacted about appeals for funding; there are replies from big names in film, TV, music and politics held in what is going to become the archival collection – and it’s surprising who said no to donating!

The Centre now functions as a museum and a women’s charity, but these are not separate spheres. In an exhibition at the Centre, one woman described how the women’s groups held for survivors of domestic abuse often involve a visit to the parlour room where the Women’s Social and Political Union began, to serve as a reminder of just how courageous women can be, and the vast amounts of change that can be achieved from the most unsuspecting domestic spaces.  The museum space also brings in activist elements. It is designed with black walls and writing in chalk, mimicking early political protest and writing by Suffragettes. It has always been a resource centre for women too, hosting all sorts of events over the years; female-only theatre workshops, DJ events, lesbian network parties – the list seems endless. This radical, feminist site has served for decades now to inspire and create hope in women from all walks of life in Manchester, and it is this that should be remembered just as much as the story of the family who once resided in the building.

Whilst the history of the Pankhurst family is so fondly remembered by many Mancunions, the Pankhurst Centre, its story, and what it represents need to become a greater part of Manchester’s public memory. The Pankhurst Trust and Manchester Women’s Aid are continuing the legacy of the Pankhursts, fighting for women wherever possible. All of  the women who work and volunteer to keep the centre running are at the heart of this fight, keeping the story of the Pankhurst alive, whilst adding their own chapters.